A coordinated series of car bombings and mortar attacks by Sunni insurgents – the deadliest yet since the American invasion in 2003 – has killed at least 161 Iraqis and wounded up to 260 at the Shi’ite district of Sadr City, northeast of Baghdad. They targeted several checkpoints and marketplaces at three busy streets leading into Sadr City from across the Army Canal, which separates it from the rest of Baghdad. The death toll is likely to increase as hospitals in Baghdad struggle to accommodate and provide treatment for the wounded.
The bombings at 3 p.m., Thursday, followed a bold attack by dozens of masked Sunni gunmen, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles, against the Health Ministry at Bab Al-Muadham in central Baghdad. The gunmen attempted to storm the ministry but were kept at bay by ministry guards. They continued to shoot at the ministry from the rooftops of surrounding buildings until U.S. and Iraqi forces arrived at the scene, two hours after the attack had started. The Health Ministry is housed in Baghdad’s Medical City, where the Baghdad Medico-legal Institute (the main morgue in Baghdad), Baghdad University’s medicine and dentistry colleges, as well as several health departments and hospitals are located. The Defense Ministry is just across the street, but it took two hours for Iraqi and U.S. troops to intervene.
Political and religious leaders were swift to condemn the attacks and to call for restraint, also declaring a curfew, but reprisal attacks were immediate. Witnesses described a scene in which Sadr City residents and Mahdi Army militiamen poured onto the streets, firing AK-47s in the air and shouting swear words against Sunni Arabs, U.S. forces and the Iraqi government. The militiamen set up roadblocks and checkpoints. There were no governmental police or army troops at the scene, but they blocked the three main bridges leading to the district.
Shi’ite militiamen fired dozens of mortar shells at the Sunni districts of Adhamiya, Sulaikh and Fadhl, just south of Sadr City. A few shells hit the dome of the Imam Abu Hanifa shrine in Adhamiya. On the other side of the Tigris, the Umm Al-Qura Mosque, headquarters of the Association of Muslim Scholars, at Ghazaliya was also attacked with mortar fire. Other districts that were targeted were Amil, Dora, Yarmouk and Jami’a. There were brief clashes at several areas of the city for the rest of the day.
My family in Baghdad huddled inside their bedroom while they listened to the whistling sound of mortar shells flying above their roof.
A source from Baghdad’s Kindi Hospital stated that up to 500 people may have been killed in the bombings and the following violence Thursday and that there are still corpses on the streets in many parts of the capital.
Attacks against several Sunni mosques were also reported from Basrah and Zubair. Both the headquarters of the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Islamic Party in Basrah were targeted with rocket-propelled grenades.
Baghdad residents report that the situation is calm today but American and Iraqi troops have been heavily deployed around several Sunni districts. Mosques have been warning Sunnis through their loudspeakers not to leave their areas.
UPDATE: More revenge killings. Shi'ite militiamen, some dressed in police uniform, attacked four mosques in a small Sunni enclave at Hurriya, west of Baghdad. Undeterred by the curfew, they burned six Sunnis alive and killed 19 others. Iraqi soldiers stood by and watched, but now a spokesman for the Defense Ministry is saying the army has the situation in Hurriya under control.
Hurriya used to be a mixed district in western Baghdad, but most of its Sunni residents have left as a result of the sectarian violence that has been raging for months. Hurriya Al-Thaltha contains several Sunni enclaves that are heavily defended, but the militiamen were able to break into it today to take revenge.
More mortar shells were fired at Adhamiya and several districts in western Baghdad during and after Friday prayers.
At the Amil district, in southern Baghdad, the few remaining Sunni families woke up to find signs painted on their doors saying, "All Sunnis should leave. This is a final warning," and "The house should not be leased or sold."
Some posters on Iraqi message boards are warning that militiamen in Sadr City are preparing for a wide-scale assault on several Sunni districts, similar to the one that followed the February shrine bombing, as soon as the curfew is lifted.